Books I Have Read: The Godless Delusion

This book provides an interesting trip through aspects of anthropology, linguistics and intercultural dialogue. In doing so, it provides a new way of looking at issues such as dependency, short-term mission and the reality of the supernatural.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa by Jim Harries of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. At one level, it is an exploration of the implications of the central theme of Dominion which I reviewed a few days ago; that Western thought and language have been broadly shaped by Christianity. Harries takes this thought and explores what it means for communication between the West and Africa. Categories such as the nature of religion and the dualism between the sacred and secular are Western concepts which are not found in African thought and language, so what does this imply for communication in general and mission in particular?

The book is a medium format (available in hardback, paperback and in electronic format) and has 190 pages, of which around 30 consists of a bibliography. The style is academic, with abundant footnotes, but it certainly isn’t pitched at a level that will frustrate the average interested reader. If it does prove difficult, there is a summary at the end, which pulls the argument together in a few pages.

Overall, the book provides an interesting trip through aspects of anthropology, linguistics and intercultural dialogue. In doing so, it provides a new way of looking at issues such as dependency, short-term mission and the reality of the supernatural. Along the way there are some fascinating insights and comparisons, such as this view on the “prosperity gospel”:

…in short, African people are as desirous of material wealth as is every- one else, but they see the source of wealth and how to get it differently from Westerners. This should not be surprising in the light of prior discussions above. Westerners on the whole do not seek to acquire material wealth through spiritual avenues. They have already divided their understanding, between material and spiritual because they have a dualistic perspective. They seek for material wealth in the material realm. This makes African people’s means of searching for wealth hard for Westerners to understand. As a result, when African people’s grasping for human flourishing happens in the form of the prosperity gospel, it is easy for Westerners to condemn it.

Overall, the book is a ringing endorsement of the ability of the Christian gospel, rather than Western, Enlightenment philosophies to transform societies. Anyone thinking through issues of cross-cultural communication will find something worthwhile here, though it will be most useful to those working in East Africa, where the author’s experience is most telling.

That being said, I do have a couple of criticisms. The first relates to the book’s subtitle “Europe and Africa”. Although the author is English, the tenor of the book is far more North-American than it is European. This is particularly obvious in the various discussions of conservative and liberal viewpoints (in particular Ch. 4) which are rooted in North American concepts which do not easily translate into the UK, much less the rest of Europe. It should be noted that the two commendations for the book are given by American college professors. In itself, this is not a problem, but the sub-title is unfortunate.

More substantially, this quote is found on page 139:

Relying on foreigners for one’s information about a foreign country and people is always problematic.

Harries acknowledges in the introduction that despite his long experience in Africa he cannot give a full account of African experience and understanding. However, despite this, there is only minimal engagement with African writers and virtually no input from African theologians. I find this puzzeling as there are a number of Christian writers from across the continent who have engaged with these same themes. While the book has its good points, the lack of authentic African voices speaking to African issues does reduce its usefulness significantly.

I was provided with an electronic copy of this book by the author in return for an honest review. I am grateful for this generosity, but I have not allowed it to colour what I have written. You can find further reviews of material by Jim Harries here.

While on the theme of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, they are holding a conference at All Nations College in the South East of England from 8-11 of December. You can find booking details here. The conference description reads:

Outside Christian workers who build on foreign presuppositions in work amongst indigenous communities can, especially when using foreign funds and languages, be interpreted as riding roughshod over indigenous sensibilities. True empowerment of local people requires getting alongside them. This necessitates vulnerability to their position and context. Such vulnerability can best be achieved if one shares the Gospel using indigenous languages and utilising local resources.